Henrietta Knight was a clever, spirited girl, in character very much like her mother… and therein lay the problem. This is the tale of an illicit love, separation and exile with the rumour of a royal lovechild.
The daughter of Henrietta St John and Robert Knight, later Lord Luxborough, Henrietta was born at her parents’ Grosvenor Street home on November 21, 1729. Named after her grandmother and her mother she was variously known as Madelaine Henrietta and Henrietta Magdalenna.
Her parents’ marriage hit the skids in 1736 when her mother Henrietta engaged in a flirtatious relationship with poet and clergyman John Dalton, tutor to Lord Beauchamp, the son of her friend Frances, Lady Hertford. Henrietta pleaded her innocence, but this wasn’t her first indiscretion and her husband Robert was having none of it. He banished his wife to Barrells, the family home in Warwickshire and denied her access to her two young children, Henry 8 and little Henrietta 7. Little is known of the childhood of the two little Knight children other than it was one of wealth and privilege, estranged from their mother.
The parish registers of St James’s, Westminister includes the marriage allegation made on May 27, 1748 - ‘Charles Wymondesold of Wanstead in the County of Essex, Esquire aged twenty seven year and a Bachelor and aledged that he intendeth to marry the Honble Miss Henrietta Knight of the parish of St James Westminister in the County of Middlesex aged eighteen year and a spinster with the consent of the Honble Robert Lord Luxborough her father now present.’
Henrietta brought £5,000 to the marriage while Charles received £5,000 from his father plus a further £1,000 a year in land. The couple divided their time between their London home and the Wanstead family estate still occupied by Wymondesold senior.
Life in Wanstead was sociable and among the Wymondesold’s frequent guests was near neighbour Lord Tylney and his brother, the dashing Captain of Dragoons, Josiah Child.
You’ve guessed what follows! The Wymondesolds had barely celebrated their leather anniversary when they separated. Henrietta was to write in a letter to Child that she “never would have yielded myself a slave to passion but you found my heart an easy conquest because it was fraught with esteem and every good opinion of you.” Like her mother these letters proved her downfall and were later used against her.
Henrietta and her mother had been reunited at the time of her marriage in 1748. Mother and daughter enjoyed a brief affectionate relationship during which they exchanged frequent letters. However, when Henrietta began her relationship with Child her mother would write to her friend William Shenstone:
“My spirits are not only depressed with what affects yours, as solitude, winter storms and more heavy winter evenings but also by the storm my daughter’s imprudence (to call it by no worse name) had raised, not only in her family but in the world. This melancholy scene to her friends, is, I suppose, an amusement to the public, and will shortly be a still greater one, who will divert themselves at her and her favourite’s expence, whilst her husband and friends lament her folly.”
Despite a plea from Wymondesold that Henrietta should keep away from Child, the couple continued to see each other with assignations in Paris and London – so it was back to the Courts where a new deed of separation was drawn up in June 1752. Wymondesold sued Child for £20,000 damages and was awarded £2,500 in February 1753, effectively condemning the lovers to a life of debt and exile.
A son was born in Paris on January 28, 1754 and the Wymondesold marriage was dissolved by an act of parliament on March 7. Henrietta and Josiah were married in Paris on May 3.
Lord Luxborough was more forgiving of his daughter than he had been of his wife and apparently never criticised her behaviour and even sent her money for the support of her child.
The couple’s marriage was a happy if relatively short one. Josiah died at Lyons in the winter of 1759/60 most probably from consumption. Their son, 9 year old Josiah junior was returned to England where he became the ward of his grandfather, but found it difficult to settle in the unfamiliar country. It is said that he returned to the continent with an Italian family. The date and whereabouts of his death remain unknown.
In May 1762 Henrietta married for a third time. Her husband was French nobleman Louis Alexandre de Grimoard of Beauvoir. Sadly Henrietta died in Marseille on March 1, 1763 after giving birth to a son, Louis Henri Scipio Grimoard of Beauvoir. She was 34 years old. Her body was bought back to England where her grieving father erected a memorial to both his children in the church of St Peter, Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire.
So what’s all this about a royal lovechild? Rumour had it that in 1748 the newly married Henrietta was introduced to Frederick, Prince of Wales by her cousin Frederick, Viscount Bolingbroke. A child born in 1750 and named Charles Knight was supposedly the illegitimate son of the Prince of Wales and a ‘Miss Knight,’ putting Henrietta firmly in the frame. There are, however, a few questions that need to be answered. The child was raised in the household of an unmarried clergyman by the name of Revd James Hampton, which in itself was unusual; royal bastards usually remained within the mother’s family with barely a flinch from the cuckold husband. It is possible that Henrietta had already acquired something of a reputation and that society gossips pinned the child’s parentage on her.
The two companion portraits of Henrietta and Josiah Child hang in The Dressing Room at Lydiard House, a room devoted to that other scandalous Lady St John, Diana Spencer.